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An Expat's Guide to Living in St. Maarten

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Sparkling blue beaches, cobblestone streets, secluded coves, and vibrant nightlife...the Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten, SXM, is a beautiful place to be!

However, it’s important to know that being on vacation on an island is very different from living here. If you have ever considered moving to paradise, St. Maarten should be high on your list.

Sometimes living on an island is not all about piña coladas, white beaches, and sunsets. Well, to be fair, most of the time it is… but let me be honest and talk about the great and the less ideal parts of living on a small island.

Short on time? Here’s the cheat sheet:

💭St. Maarten is a stunning Caribbean Island that is uniquely divided in 2 parts: the Dutch side (St. Maarten) and the French side (Saint-Martin).

👩‍🏫Many expats, myself included, are working here as Dutch teachers. This is a very common way to get a work permit. 

👩🏼‍🤝‍👩🏾The expat and local community are welcoming. It’s small and gossip travels fast but they’re also eager to bring new people into their circles.

🏠The best area to live is close to your work to avoid traffic. Find a long-term place to stay once you arrive but in the meantime, this centrally located vacation rental is a good starting point. 

🎁Everything is imported so some stuff simply won’t be available. Plan ahead or embrace minimalism. 

🏖️One of the best parts about living in St. Maarten are the stunning beaches, impeccable natural beauty, and access to watersports. If you like the beach, you’ll love living here!

Settling in St. Maarten

I'm able to live in St. Maarten because I work on the Dutch side as a Dutch teacher. I have a work permit that's given me the unique ability to give living in St. Maarten a real chance. It's been a unique experience but a wonderful one at that.

Living on a small island like SXM will give you the opportunity to meet a lot of people. Even if you don’t have family abroad with you, soon enough the island and the people who live here will make living here feel like home.

There is a great community of expats who will guide and help you to get along with the island. 

‍On the other side: prepare yourself to feel homesick or secluded at times. Island life also means a lot of people come and go. You’ll have to say goodbye to many people you were starting to care about. You’ll feel lonely and stuck on a remote island.

And a word of caution: It’s hard to stay anonymous here because there will always be someone who has seen you. Forget about keeping secrets because gossip goes around fast.

While this may not be ideal for some, it can also be seen as something positive: you can stay on your best behavior with those you meet, and make awesome friends that go beyond the superficial.

If you're planning to move solo, you'll learn so much about yourself. It'll definitely be worth it!

Finding Accommodation on St. Maarten

Philipsburg, photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com/Debbie Ann Powell

Once you have arrived, you’ll have to find a place to stay. A place you can call home. You can easily find Facebook groups to rent apartments and houses. This will be the easiest way to find long-term accommodation once you arrive.

Since Hurricane Irma occurred back in 2017, rent has been high so you have to be prepared to spend almost half of your salary on rent. The easiest way to save some money is to share a house with another expat. I’m very lucky I found a nice roommate to share a very spacious and well-located house with.

Also, be sure that your apartment is hurricane-proof.

Although you'll want to find a more affordable, long-term, I recommend waiting until you're here to do so. That way you can check out the house or apartment in-person before signing a lease.

📍Book a hotel or a vacation rental in the meantime to buy yourself some time while you settle in. A few recommended places to stay on the Dutch side of the island are:

  • Budget Stay: Peaceful Setting Close to Beach: This quaint apartment rental offers a kitchen, a swimming pool, and one bedroom. 
  • Mid-Tier Stay: Ideal for Remote Workers: This 2-bedroom apartment is well-equipped for everything you need for a comfortable, and work-friendly stay.
  • Luxury Stay: Orient Beach Views: If you’re moving here for the beach, stay right on it! This 1-bedroom condo has all you need plus spectacular views. 
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Dutch Side vs. French Side of the Island

Aerial view of the stunning island, photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com/Multiverse

St. Maarten is divided in two parts: The Dutch side, Sint Maarten, where I live, and the French side, Saint-Maarten.

On the Dutch side of the island, there’s almost no access to the variety of stores available in the normal world.

Things have to be shipped here so you have to wait patiently and even still, some things won’t be available.

I used to love to read books but there’s only one bookstore. As well, I would go shopping often but my closet hasn’t been filled for months. I used to love to decorate my house with nice stuff but everything here is way overpriced.

Thus, bring the items you know you’ll need or want before you come and learn to live like a minimalist! 

Surprisingly, there are many supermarkets and also a lot of American brands like McDonald’s, Subway, and KFC, to name a few.

Finding What You Need

You will quickly learn to go to certain places on certain days for certain things. Like knowing yogurt is way cheaper, and bread is way tastier on the French side of the island. SXM has plenty of places to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner out though so you'll never fret over restaurants.

From feet-in-the-sand beach bars to haute cuisine, there’s a kitchen for everyone! A service charge of 15% is usually included – if not, don’t forget to pay it on top of the bill! 

Also, be aware that during the low season, numerous establishments will be closed. If you like to go out at night, you’ll like to spend time at Simpson Bay, an area with lots of bars and clubs all offering ladies night on a different day of the week.

Make sure you drive home safely though! Don’t put too much trust in local taxis.

‍Daily Life on St. Maarten

Eating a fresh watermelon slice with the view of the pool and green hills in the backdrop on Sint Maarten island

An important lesson for you if you plan to live on a tropical island: never take the beach for granted!

Even though I’m living so close to the ocean, I often think: hey, I haven’t gone to the beach in a while. Caribbean beaches leave me speechless with the view of the ocean displaying its stunning shades of blue. You’ll see sunsets that will take your breath away. There is nothing comparable to the landscape and the contrast of the warm and blue waters. 

Sint Maarten offers stunning beaches, impeccable nature, and a welcoming local community that has felt like family.

Just like living on nearby Aruba or any of the number of Caribbean Islands with digital nomad visas, the natural beauty of this region is something truly special.

Beaches are filled with sand though and if you’re not used to having sand everywhere, like literally everywhere, it may be annoying or even an issue. Lately, the lens of my camera broke because sand came in. Because of the lack of stores, it’s impossible to fix it at this time. 

Adjusting to Small Town Island Life

If you have always lived in a big city like me you might feel like you will miss out on anything entertainment-related, like going to coffee shops, big stores, cultural events, museums, etc. In the beginning you’ll be really excited to visit every spot but after a few months you’ll miss the diversity and often go to the same places. 

Of course, it depends on what you like because the activities you can do on the water are incredible. There are gorgeous spots for snorkeling, diving, sailing, paddle boarding, jet skiing and so on. But don’t forget, these activities can get pretty expensive since they're targeted for tourists, not locals or expats.

I absolutely love the fact that I don't have to worry about what clothes I’m going to wear when I wake up.

The weather is usually amazing and sunny. I don’t miss covering myself in layers or standing on a train platform with my teeth chattering. But 365 days of summer also means you will be drenched in sweat the moment you walk from the house to your car. These temperatures will make you exhausted and lazy.

Having AC is a must if you want to survive!

‍The Cons of Living in St. Maarten

Personally, there are two things I really hate: mosquitos and traffic.

You’ll be attacked by the mosquitos all year round. The little bastards are faster and smaller than the European ones. They can also carry some serious diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, or zika. So bring on the mosquito repellent or look for some natural remedies to ward them off!

As for traffic, it can be a true disaster on SXM and parking is a nightmare (especially in Philipsburg and Marigot). People tend to back out into the road a lot, so you have to watch out for that. Also, you’ll be passed by some cars and motorcycles going at ridiculous speeds. 

There is only one main road so even a small accident could block the road for hours. You might need to take a local bus but don’t rely on them. They often don’t come and they stop driving at 9pm.

This means that it will be important to be patient and to have a backup plan in case something like this happens.

Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to St. Maarten

A group of friends splattered in paint having a fun day on Sint Maarten island
Having a fun day with fellow expats

While I was slightly prepared to live in the Caribbean, there was a lot I didn't know about that took me by surprise. To avoid the same thing happening to you, these are the top few things I wish I knew before moving to St. Maarten:

  • Having a car is a must! Like I said above, public transportation isn't really reliable so you'll need to be able to drive yourself to and from work, for errands, and for days and nights out. Buying a car is a big expense, so that leaves me to #2...
  • Be financially prepared. If you move abroad as a Dutch teacher like I did, your school will handle all of your big moving costs but you'll still need to pay for the little things to get settled. Prices tend to be higher here for daily goods given that everything is imported.
  • The location of your accommodation will be so, so key. Do your best to find a place to stay near your job because since traffic can be bad, you'll want to save on the commute as much as possible.
  • Food is a huge part of the culture here. The meal comes before everything!

Will You Try Living in St. Maarten?

Living on an island you’ll get used to a simpler life with fewer distractions of the modern world. You’ll learn to live your life slower, and things will be more relaxing and less stressful.

Media will be needed to track hurricanes as life depends on that but there’s no need to get overwhelmed by constant propaganda. Living abroad in the Caribbean has really changed my day-to-day worries and outlook on life.

Overall if you are looking for a life in paradise and want to be close to nature, you will totally love living in St. Maarten!

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